Many countries have their own distinctive styles of music, with varying degrees of popularity. Some genres are undeniably universal, whereas other genres rarely leave their own country and might only be something played for tourists anyway. Seriously, you’re unlikely to hear German oom-pah music played outside of an Oktoberfest tent. And then there’s music that is forever linked to a particular country while still being internationally beloved. This is certainly the case when it comes to the best Cuban songs.
Do you like to listen to appropriately themed music to get you into the mood for a holiday? Or maybe you need a playlist while researching a potential holiday online?
Whatever the reason, these songs from Cuba will have you on the next available flight to Havana… or at the very least, dancing around the room (make sure you close your curtains unless you want your neighbours to see).
1. Perhaps the Best Known Cuban Song
You’ll know this first one from one of its practically countless versions, recorded by a multitude of performers. The title Guantanamera simply refers to a woman who originates from the Guantanamo region of Cuba (which sounds less romantic than the soulful way in which the song is performed might lead you to believe). For many Cubans it’s a deeply patriotic song, due to the fact that the lyrics for the song’s most performed incarnation in Cuba were written by the poet and national hero Jose Martí. It’s one of the best-known and simply the best Cuban songs.
2. A Salute to a Well-Known Cuban Hero
Despite the fact that he was born in Argentina, Che Guevara is truly a hero to many generations of Cubans. The song Hasta Siempre, Comandante was written by the Cuban songwriter Carlos Puebla in 1965. Guevara wrote a public farewell letter to Cuba when he left the country, and the song is a poetic and melancholy reply to this letter.
3. A Non-Poetic Title for One of the Best Cuban Songs
The initial popularity of rumba throughout the world can be traced back to one of the best Cuban songs, with a somewhat non-poetic title of The Peanut Vendor. Wildly popular, it has been recorded more than 160 times (with the first time being back in 1928).
4. A Beautiful Song with a Sad Legacy
Any music from Benny Moré can be tinged with sadness. Moré was a truly phenomenal performer, who went from performing for spare change to being one of the most popular singers in Cuba. Any list of the best Cuban songs will need to include something from Moré. We’ve gone with Mata Siguaraya, one of his more boisterous numbers. Born in 1919, it would be surprising if Moré was still with us, but there’s an element of sadness to his music when you learn that he died from issues related to alcoholism at the age of just 43.
5. A Different Kind of 80s Song
What comes to mind when you think of 80s songs? It’s probably laughably bad hair and an overreliance on synthesisers. The best Cuban songs are not to be found amongst its cheesy pop output, and yet one of the most internationally known Cuban songs was recorded in 1987. Chan Chan was written by Compay Segundo, and it rode the rediscovered wave of love for Cuban music that made its way around the world in the 90s, when a newly-recorded version of the song was popularised in a certain movie about the Cuban music scene. Give it a listen, since you might have heard it before.
6. What About Some Cuban Hip Hop?
You might disagree that this one should be included on the list of the best Cuban songs, but we want to show you a different side of the Cuban music scene, far removed from the traditional salsa and rumba that will forever be associated with the island nation. What about some Cuban hip hop? It’s stylish and gutsy, with the same amount of swagger that could be expected in hip hop music from Cuba’s neighbour, the USA. This song from the Cuban group Orishas gives you an idea of what Cuban young people would be more inclined to listen to… or what they might have listened to back in the year 2000 when the song was released.
7. Time for Some Patriotism
It can be wise to at least be familiar with the national anthem of a country before you visit. It’s not as though you will be expected to perform it, but knowing a few verses will endear you to your hosts. It also helps you to avoid awkward situations where you might hear it and remark: “What is that annoying song?” The Cuban national anthem is known as La Bayamesa, and it was composed in 1868 (although not adopted as the anthem until 1902). Interestingly, the song was kept after the Cuban Revolution, where most vestiges of the old regime were dropped. Its composer, Pedro Felipe Figueredo, wrote the song just two years before he was executed during the Ten Years’ War
8. Cuban and American
The formation of Latin jazz can be credited to a number of songs, one of which we’ve included here. The song Manteca is more of an international production, co-written by Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. It was a song that really made the influence of Cuban music clear, despite the fact that its two other writers were American, and that it was first performed in the USA.
The Cuban influences might not be immediately obvious until you really pay attention to that distinctive percussion.